Getting Unstuck: From Rumination to Investigation

Connecting to your breath when thoughts or images arise is like spotting a friend in a crowd: You don’t have to shove everyone else aside or order them to go away; you just direct your attention, your enthusiasm, your interest toward your friend. ‘Oh,’ you think, ‘there’s my friend in that crowd. Oh, there’s my breath, among those thoughts and feelings and sensations.’” Sharon Salzberg

If you prefer to listen

When we don’t have the resources to relate to an unpleasant experience, we feel stress.  And the stress triggers either the fight, flight or freeze response.  We fight ourselves with self-criticism, flee from others isolating ourselves or freeze with rumination. Each of these reactions get us stuck as we try to move away from the unpleasant experience rather than through it. Today we will focus on how rumination gets us stuck and how we can move from ruminating to investigating.

Rumination is being lost in thought, spinning in worries, regrets and grievances. Our brain over thinks things in its effort to take control and keep us safe.  Rumination narrows our focus and exaggerates our experience. With rumination we get stuck in the story of “I am so bad.” Or “This is so horrible.” 

Reviewing the story makes us feel like we are in control.  It distracts us from the negative emotions we don’t want to feel.  It is more comfortable to feel righteous indignation, than to face grief or fear. The rumination does not help us to think or to plan, nor does it make the problem go away.

As if when we think about it for the 57th time the problem is going to go away.Kristen Neff

Think about what you are trying to accomplish when you ruminate.  Chances are you are trying to create a better past. When we fight with reality, reality always wins. We use up a lot of energy ruminating about that past, that may be why it leads to depression.

We ruminate and obsess over the shoulda, coulda, woulda because it would be more pleasant to change the past than to confront the reality of the present.  But if we try to repress our anger, fear or anxiety, we end up playing whack a mole. We need to turn toward our difficult feelings to see them for what they are. Looking deeply helps us see they are not so overwhelming.  We can deal with them.

We cannot control what thoughts come up in our minds.  But we can use mindfulness to decouple the urge to go into fight, flight or freeze mode. Mindfulness is about changing our relationship with thoughts, emotions and body sensations rather than trying to change or get rid of them. Mindfulness rubs reality in our face, showing us the cause and effect.

Put differently, mindfulness is about seeing the world more clearly. If we get lost because our subjective biases keep us wandering around in circles, mindfulness brings awareness of these very biases so that we can see how we are leading ourselves astray. Once we see that we are not going anywhere, we can stop, drop the unnecessary baggage, and reorient ourselves. Metaphorically, mindfulness becomes the map that helps us navigate life’s terrain.Justin Brewer

By coming home to the present moment, we can learn to stop regretting the past and worrying about the future. We can release ourselves from the tangled knot of self-judgement by acknowledging that these are simply thoughts and emotions arising in my mind.  I don’t need to beat myself up for having these thoughts, it is a human tendency.  I don’t need to believe these thoughts, they may have been true in the past, but are not necessarily true now. I don’t need to push these thoughts away; I can look underneath them to see what they are trying to tell me. Our thoughts are simply words or images until we think they are so great and so exciting that we can’t get it out of our heads.

That’s rumination, getting stuck at the surface story line. Looking underneath the thoughts is what moves us from rumination to investigation.  We can’t force ourselves to stop thinking or to pay attention.  Just try not to think of a pink elephant. The way we train our attention is through curiosity because it feels good and naturally draws us to whatever the object is.

 “There is intellectual curiosity and there is experiential curiosity. We can say, “I wonder what is happening as I eat too much sugar,” and it’s kind of a disembodied curiosity, or we can really feel how it makes us feel, which is we probably feel like crap after eating a bunch of sugar. If I eat too much sugar, I get a rush that’s kind of like a restless feeling, and then I crash. And when I feel that clearly enough, I become less excited about eating sugar in the future.Judson Brewer

I have found the intellectual curiosity leads me back to rumination.  I end up analyzing who said what and why over and over again.  Experiential curiosity leads to investigation. I get curious about the sensations and emotions in my body and mind right now. I can’t change the past, so I can’t heal the past.  But I can change the present so I can heal the suffering of the present moment. I focus on the truth of this moment.

Practice is becoming aware of the negative impulses in my mind.  We can say, “My mind just got startled, calm down. This is happening, what should I do next?”  The only way I can see clearly what’s happening is by settling my mind.Sylvia Bornstein

As we practice, we begin to see more clearly the true results of our actions. We have to turn toward our cravings to see what rewards they really bring us.  Often, in the long run our cravings bring us more pain than pleasure. Eating that bag of M&M’s feels good in the short run. But then we get a stomachache from eating too much chocolate.  And on top of that we are not happy with what our scale says the next morning. Once we see the results of our old habits are not that pleasant, we can let go of them and begin new ones.

Rumination is living with the hope of a better past. Investigation is focusing on what is happening right now in the present moment.  We turn the light off on our thoughts so we can see what is really here. I could not understand the difference between ruminating and investigating or looking deeply.  I read somewhere that everything looks better from a distance.  This made me realize I was looking closely, not deeply.  When you look closely at things you see all the flaws.  If you look at me from a distance, I look much younger than I am.  When you look closely, you see all my age spots and wrinkles.  If you look deeply, you see beneath to who I really am.

Begin to investigate by asking yourself, “What is happening in this very moment? What are my senses taking in?  What body sensations do I feel? What emotions? Your mind will keep trying to bring you back to thinking about the external experience as it thinks that will protect you from feeling pain. This is the time to ask yourself a question that redirects your attention to the present moment.

To keep your mind focused, you may want to name what you are feeling.  Contraction… tightness…numbness…fear…hollowness…shakiness…shame…anger…grief…self-hatred.

Then ask yourself, what am I believing right now?  I am a victim…I am stupid…I am bad…She is bad…She did it to hurt me.

Then widen the investigation by asking, how has living with this belief affected my life?  What would life be like if I did not believe this?

Now continue investigating by asking yourself, what do I need right now?” Attention? Safety? Acceptance? Connection? Understanding? Love? Listen, and then, whatever the response, just imagine if you received that, what would that be like? Those are the small steps you need to take to get unstuck.

If you are suffering it is because you are believing untrue thoughts and you have not investigated in a way that will release them. It helps to shake us out of our habitual cocoon of thoughts that are sometimes unconscious. That engages our prefrontal cortex to we know what steps to take to get unstuck.

According to Zendal Segal, our habitual patterns of negative thinking are often based on old, well-practiced, automatic routines. They are motivated by the goal of escaping/avoiding distressing feelings or problematic life situations. These unhelpful routines persist because of the 7 drivers of old habits of thinking:

  1. Living on “automatic pilot” (rather than with awareness and conscious choice).
  2. Relating to experience through thought (rather than directly sensing).
  3. Dwelling on the past and future (exaggerating the past and creating fantasies of the future rather than being fully in the present moment).
  4. Trying to avoid, escape, or get rid of unpleasant experience (rather than approach it with interest).
  5. Needing things to be different from how they are (rather than allowing them to be just as they already are).
  6. Seeing thoughts as true and real (rather than as mental events that may or may not correspond to reality).
  7. Treating yourself harshly and unkindly (rather than taking care of yourself with kindness and compassion).

The good news is that we can learn how to step out of and stay out of these ruminative thought cycles, just as we can step out of and stay out of bad habits.

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